22 October 2015

Jake vs. Lakoff: The Reckoning

I haven't exactly hidden the fact that cognitive linguist George Lakoff, author of such books as Where Mathematics Comes From and Philosophy in the Flesh, has been very influential to my thinking. His writing challenged and ultimately helped shape many of my views on philosophy, metaphysics, and cognition — views which I have expressed in quite a few blog posts.

My comrade-in-blog and occasional sparring partner Steven Jake, who blogs at The Christian Agnostic, has — to put it lightly — not found Lakoff's views quite so persuasive. So much so, in fact, that he wrote a series of blogs posts on the book Philosophy in the Flesh which more or less lampooned it as a farcical attempt at philosophy by some guy who clearly doesn't understand real philosophy. You can read his three-part series on the book here, here, and here.

Speaking of putting things lightly, it would be fair to say that I was similarly unimpressed by Steven's criticism of the book. In my estimation, it was so poorly researched that it didn't even engage the ideas in the book at all, instead parading around a series of straw-man arguments that betray a failure to charitably represent and accurately comprehend Lakoff's arguments.

Now I know this all happened some time ago, and it'd be perfectly fair to say I'm beating a dead horse. And you know what? I don't care. I'm going to beat the shit out of that horse-corpse. I'm going to respond, finally, to Steven's criticisms of one of my favorite thinkers.

Part 1. The Correspondence Theory of Truth is False

13 October 2015

That time I responded to a Ray Comfort video

A lot of my friends and acquaintances, across a broad religious and non-religious spectrum, consider Ray Comfort to be not really worth their time. His arguments are so consistently bad that two of them — the "crockoduck" and the banana-design — subsequently became popular atheist memes. Yet while he may not command the kind of esoteric prestige that someone like William Lane Craig or AC Grayling does, he's nonetheless a widely known voice in the evangelical community and his arguments reflect common talking points for everyday believers.

Case in point, this video on "How to Prove the Existence of God".

Of course, Ray thinks this is kind of superfluous, because he insists that everyone already "knows" God exists:

Why bother "proving" something everybody already knows? Apparently, to show the rational-thinking types that their secret belief is rationally justified. Or something, I don't know, honestly.

Anyway, let's go through a few key phrases in this video. Ray is going through the old Watchmaker argument, and there are literally whole books on it. It's the idea that since man-made things like paintings and buildings have creators, so too must everything else that exists. And that's where Ray first stumbles, saying "creation is proof there's a creator". This is the fallacy of assuming the consequent, because precisely the issue is whether the universe is in fact a "creation" at all. Seconds later though, Ray also uses the word "nature" to describe "creation" — but saying that "you cannot have a nature without a maker" is an assertion, not an argument. The statement presumes nature is created, and that's the claim atheists dispute.

He then says it is "scientifically impossible for [material things] to create themselves". And it's true! Mountains don't have consciousness or agency of any kind, and obviously 'creating itself' is paradoxical. But of course, atheists don't believe that mountains 'create themselves', but that they're formed by the laws of physics. Ray would probably reply that the laws of physics themselves need a maker. But do they? Lots of scientists and philosophers think that the laws of physics, and indeed the universe itself, may simply "be" — they may be 'brute facts'.

In any case, Ray continues by suggesting that atheists ask "Who created God?" Ray replies that God is spirit, and eternal; only material things need a creator. But we're right back in the realm of pure assertion. Ray's not actually making any headway with an argument; he's just loosely stringing together a series of assertions. Even this tactic, though, causes him to trip over his own statements.

Ray claims that "the Bible says God made time". I'm not sure where in Genesis, or anywhere else, the Bible actually states such a thing. But even if it were true, it'd raise an obvious question: what was God doing before he created time? Besides, what does it even mean for a being to "exist timelessly"? It's one of those statements that sounds mysterious and profound, but is really just meaningless gobbledygook. A God that exists at no place and at no time sounds an awful lot like the God I believe in.

Atheists are just closet theists who don't want to be morally accountable 

Ray goes on to claim that atheists already know God exists but don't want to acknowledge this uncomfortable fact because then we'd have to be morally accountable for our actions. He says, "The atheist can't find God for the same reason a thief can't find a policeman. Because if they admit he exists, they are ultimately responsible to him — and that is not a pleasant thought".

There are a million directions I could go with this one, but I'll keep it simple. I'll actually grant (for the sake of discussion) that Ray is right. There's only one problem: which God? There are tens of thousands of religions. What if I need to be accountable to Allah by following the decrees of Mohammed? What if I'm supposed to be following the Book of Mormon?

Okay, so let's assume that what Ray really means is that I secretly know that the Christian god exists. This doesn't get me much farther; as I noted in my previous post, "Christianity" is less a singular religion than a wide umbrella that encompasses a staggering array of theological viewpoints. Wikipedia gives a nice overview of the major branches in Christianity:

Of course these are just the major branches. Each is home to a litany of sub-denominations with a bewildering disparity of views on major concepts like sin, redemption, historicity, the Fall, the meaning of the resurrection, etc. And that of course is to say nothing of the vast moral disparity in the Christian church. So maybe Ray really means that atheists secretly believe in the Christian God and that they also secretly know that Ray's own particular brand of Western apocalyptic fundamentalist evangelicism, and the idiosyncratic moral views it encompasses, is the one correct branch of Christianity. Surely even Ray Comfort isn't naive and incredulous enough to believe such nonsense.

Because even if atheists really did secretly believe in "God", then whose god do we secretly believe in? People have such radically different ideas about who and what God is, what he wants from us, and what he does and plans to do that just saying that atheists will have to be accountable to God doesn't get them very far. Accountable to whose version of God? Ray takes all this for granted, and it's devastating to his arguments. 

Then again, it shouldn't really surprise us that Ray takes all this for granted. Ray consistently displays the kind of compartmentalized thinking characteristic of someone insulated in a religious in-group. Neil Carter over at Godless in Dixie recently penned a great post about this phenomenon and how it affects one's tendency toward intellectual compartmentalization. Particularly relevant in his post is the tendency for Christianity to discourage rational doubt. Proverbs 28:26 says, “He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool: but whoso walketh wisely, he shall be delivered"; Proverbs 3:5 delivers the famous refrain, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding". Christians learn early on that when rational doubt conflicts with faith, faith must be preserved and the doubt be squelched. 

Ray is probably a lost cause. People who engage him on his Facebook page (or anywhere else) are unlikely to make a dent in his belief. He's so deeply entrenched in the evangelical community that he views non-believers and less fundamentalist believers as outsiders not to be trusted, and he'll always view debates with them as antagonistic. But I think it's worthin discussing his views from time to time because maybe, just maybe, someone who is on the fence about this stuff will see through his charade and get on with their lives.

08 October 2015

Does the existence of Christ even matter anymore?

Orthodoxy has changed.

I don't mean that so much in the obvious sense, in that what the church takes as accepted doctrine has changed; rather, the very concept of orthodoxy has changed so much as to become virtually meaningless. There is no "Christian orthodoxy" anymore; there hasn't been for a long, long time. Rather, Christianity is comprised of a myriad of denominations, subsumed under innumerable historical schisms, that all have their own competing orthodoxies. If you disagree with the orthodoxy of one denomination, it's a safe bet you can just find another that you do agree with. And if you can't? Just start your own! 

It wasn't that long ago in the span of human history that if you rejected the existence of Adam & Eve or denied the historicity of the Great Flood, odds were reasonable that you could be branded a heretic. Times have certainly changed — virtually the entirety of the Old Testament is historically dubious. We know that humans were not created in a puff of magic, from dirt and ribs. There's certainly no reason to think that Adam and Eve ever existed at all — nor Cain and Abel, nor Abraham, nor Noah. The consensus on the exodus is that it almost certainly did not happen. And as Steven Pinker so poignantly wrote in The Better Angels of Our Nature, "If there was a Davidic Empire stretching from the Euphrates to the Red Sea around the turn of the 1st millennium BCE, no one else seems to have noticed it."
Of course, some Christians will dispute these things — even going through great lengths to rationalize belief in a historical Adam & Eve in some cases, but that's not the point. The point is that one can be a perfectly orthodox Christian — to whatever dubious extent the term has meaning anymore — and reject all those things. You can believe that the stories in the Old Testament, from David & Goliath to Job to Jonah & the Whale, are just allegories meant to enlighten us about human nature — or, if you prefer, divine nature. You certainly can insist that Moses was a real person and that the exodus really did happen, and you can certainly argue with atheists on the internet about it until your fingers bleed. But in the end it doesn't really matter; you could also completely reject the historicity of the exodus and of Moses himself (or call yourself agnostic on the matter), and your cred as a proper Christian need not diminish at all. Who decides what a proper Christian is, anyway?

What about the gospels?

The gospels are documents of extremely dubious historicity. I've commented about it frequently in past posts. There is simply no compelling reason to believe that Jesus, as described in the Bible, ever actually existed. Nor is there any compelling reason to believe that the supernatural events described are anything more than typical religious mythology commonplace across all cultures. Some historians, fond of intellectual masturbation, like to argue whether some kind of secular historical Jesus existed. I think that's ultimately a speculative enterprise and beside the point. What really matters is whether Christ as described in the Bible existed, and there's simply no rational reason to think he did. Sure, maybe no way to prove he didn't, but who cares?

But to deny the historicity of the gospels and the existence of Christ would surely be going against whatever fiber of unified orthodoxy still exists broadly across the Christian church, right? Surely no one can claim that Christ is a mythological figure and yet still call themselves a Christian!

Or can they?Leaving aside for a moment the dubious state of Christian orthodoxy, consider the "penal substitution theory of atonement". Wikipedia:
It argues that Christ, by his own sacrificial choice, was punished (penalised) in the place of sinners (substitution), thus satisfying the demands of justice so God can justly forgive the sins

Not all Christians believe this particular theory of atonement; many more believe in other types of substitutionary atonement, or in something else altogether. Wikipedia, again:
Many but by no means all ancient and modern branches of Christianity embrace substitutionary atonement as the central meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross. These branches however have developed different theories of atonement. The Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholics do not incorporate substitutionary atonement in their doctrine of the Cross and Resurrection. The Roman Catholic Church incorporates it into Aquinas’ Satisfaction doctrine rooted in the idea of penance. Most Evangelical Protestants interpret it largely in terms of penal substitution

What is Christianity, anyway?

Okay. So you can reject the idea, held by many modern evangelical protestants, that Christ's death means that he in some literal, metaphysical way assumed the guilt for your sins and was punished for it. You can even reject the broader idea of substitutionary atonement in its entirety and still count yourself among millions of Eastern European Christians.

So here's the conundrum: if Christ's blood and death do not have a literal metaphysical significance, is it at all a stretch to say that it's all, like the stories in the Old Testament, just a metaphor? Imagine a Christian saying something like this:
I don’t need to believe Christ literally existed or that the gospels are historical documents; I think that misses the point. I believe that through the Christ story God wanted to teach us about himself, and about our relationship with Him. He wanted to tell us that our sin hurts him, that its painful for him to watch us drive ourselves away from Him. And he wanted to tell us that he forgives us anyway, that through his grace he brings us closer to him despite our selfishness.
Here you would have a self-proclaimed Christian who, like millions of other Christians, rejects substitutionary atonement yet believes common doctrines of Christianity such as the fallen nature of humanity and redemption through grace. In fact, rejecting the literal existence of Christ may save a lot of headaches regarding how God could be a substitutionary redeemer to himself to satisfy the accords of his own laws and covenants. It would save a lot of headaches about what the Trinity actually is (it's three persons, but also one person... ?) because the Trinity wouldn't be literally real (it's not even in the Bible, per se) but a metaphor.

With Christianity itself being less a single religion and more a broad umbrella encompassing a wealth of competing orthodoxies regarding virtually every aspect of doctrine, is there any compelling reason why one could not fully accept the dubious historicity of the gospels, reject a historical Christ, and still call themselves a Christian?